Sharing food has power. It opens dialogue, connects people, and encourages more balanced eating. Sharing meals is a beneficial experience for people of all ages, from children and teens to older adults. Families who eat together have a more nutritious diet and enjoy a greater variety of foods, plus they have better communication. Pesach has a strong focus on children, but it’s important to focus on their education and family connection all year. This can be effectively accomplished at the dinner table!
Children benefit from eating in a family setting. They need education and training on how to eat, and learn these skills from observing adults around them. Consider a baby just learning to eat — he mimics the chewing motion he observes others doing with food, and that’s when we know he may be ready to start eating! Children continue to do this, to some extent, as they age, mimicking and learning from the adults around them. Family meal-time is an important time for parents to communicate their values and beliefs, instruct about social skills, and increase family connectedness.
Eating with family is associated with improved wellbeing, nutritional status, and school status. Children who eat with family have a lower risk of being overweight or developing eating disorders, are less likely to smoke or get in serious fights, and have improved school performance and better vocabulary.
Nutritionally, family meals are associated with increased intake of vegetables and fruit, calcium-rich foods, and decreased intake of sugar-sweetened drinks. When young children eat with family five or more times a week, they are more likely to eat more adventurously, and not stick only to foods they like. They will eat nutritious foods more often, including protein-rich foods, grain products, vegetables and fruit. Nutritional benefits are seen across socioeconomic groups, all aged children, and even when meals are eaten with only one parent, and are not reserved exclusively to dinner. Breakfast too, appears to provide benefits for adolescents’ dietary intake of increased fruit and vegetables .
So, if you are convinced you want to have more family meals – not just on Shabbos and Yom Tov – how do you do it?
- Check your schedule
Make it work for your family. You need to be realistic about what fits your schedule. If every weeknight is jam-packed with multiple activities, it may not be feasible to get everyone to sit down together at one time. Start by choosing the meal that works best for your family, and if possible, you can consider increasing meals over time. Additionally, meals may not include everyone, every-time. “Family meals” can be two people eating together.
- Make it a family project
Let everyone know your plan and involve the family in preparing the meal. This includes planning a menu, shopping for ingredients, and helping make the food or set the table. Involving children with food preparation teaches them valuable skills that can positively affect their future health. And being a part of meal prep provides a sense of “ownership” that may increase their willingness to try new foods.
Knowing ahead of time what you plan to serve can cut down on stress when days get busy. Preparing meals or ingredients ahead of time allows for quicker meal set-up, busy schedules or unexpected situations. Even having some super-fast meal ideas at top-of-mind can ease the stress of coming up with meal ideas when things go awry. (For example, scrambled eggs with veggies and toast; vegetable- and canned-fish wraps)
- Establish expectations
Families with successful meal-times do so by creating a family mealtime culture, where meals are at a specific time, and everyone is expected to attend meals, and contribute to set-up (for example, setting the table, or cutting up vegetables).
- Make it stress-free
Meals are more enjoyable (and likely to be continued) when there is less fighting and stress. However, mealtime can often be a stressful time! One area of stress you can eliminate is to remove the pressure of eating from kids (and adults). If old enough, allow kids to serve themselves, and decide how much they want. Don’t make them finish what’s on their plate or take a “no-thank-you bite.” Trust in the power of the Division of Responsibility; your responsibility is to decide when and where to eat and what is being served, it’s your child’s responsibility to decide what to eat and how much. Controlling how much of a specific food he eats will likely result in a power struggle and food fights.
With more than 20 meals over the course of Pesach, there are ample opportunities for family eating. The benefits for everyone can remain all year long by continuing to eat together. Find the meals that work the best for you and your family and build from there.
Bracha Kopstick is a Registered Dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian, and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Contact her at Bracha@beekaynutrition.com
- Dietitians of Canada (2018). Nutrition month member resource manual
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